Jonathan Lichtenstein ("The Berlin Shadow") interview by John Dunston

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2GN: John Dunston interviews Jonathan Lichtenstein on his book "The Berlin Shadow: Living with the Ghosts of the Kindertransport" with Q&A

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John Dunston will be interviewing Jonathan Lichtenstein about his first book, The Berlin Shadow: Living with the Ghosts of the Kindertransport, a memoir confronting the trauma of the twentieth century and its effects on the father and son.

Lichtenstein says that "The Berlin Shadow is about the journey I took with my father where we traced the route of his escape from Nazi Germany on one of the ‘Kindertransports’. My father was 12 when he travelled alone from Berlin to London. He had never talked about what happened to him.

My father was fearless, whether para-gliding whilst in his eighties or telling-off complete strangers. He was often badly behaved and being with him was always full of surprises. Every situation was riddled with quarrels and rows – though this made him very funny.

During the journey he began to talk about the loss of his family and country whilst celebrating his survival and good fortune and the blessings of a new unexpected life in Wales."

The Berlin Shadow is currently being translated into Italian, German, Dutch and Danish. Jonathan's plays have been performed in London, Edinburgh, New York, Berlin, Chicago, Sydney, Dresden, Cardiff and elsewhere. His first play opened at the Soho Theatre in London in 2000.

		Jonathan Lichtenstein  ("The Berlin Shadow") interview by John Dunston image

Review by Mike Levy

As someone who makes a special study of the Kindertransport, I have never come across a book quite like this. The Kindertransport was a volunteer-led programme to rescue 10,000 children, mostly Jewish, from the clutches of the Nazis. They came to safety in Britain from railway stations and ports throughout Germany, Austria, Czech lands and Poland arriving in our shores mostly through the port of Harwich. One of these was the father of Jonathan Lichtenstein who has published this memoir of a road trip like no other. A few years back with Hans, his ageing and cantankerous dad, the author retraced the steps of a journey to England – but in reverse. The result is a unique piece of literature; poetic, visceral, shocking, funny, painful and joyous. It is a journey both physical and metaphorical; a cruel odyssey across the stormy waters of Jonathan’s own childhood and the fractured journey with his father as they ferry over the North Sea towards Holland and Berlin.

The book’s title could not be more apt. The experience of Hans as a child growing up in Nazi Germany cast a shadow so great that it dimmed the lives of the father and his family for decades hence. It was a dark shadow which blotted out Jonathan’s own relationship with his dad who had become a GP in a remote part of central Wales. The memoir skips between that hugely eventful childhood including hair raising car trips (his father was a manic driver to whom danger and risk taking were essential to his vital organs) and the journey back to Berlin with its ranks of sharply visible ghosts. It is not for nothing that the book’s subtitle is ‘Living with the ghosts of the Kindertransport’.

The narrative fast-tracks from deeply elegiac and moving to memories of Jonathan’s own childhood and adolescence surviving with a viciously troubled father. Interspersed are shards of dialogue recorded during the car trip back to Germany’s capital. These are revealing and often bleakly funny. Jonathan tries, usually without success in turning the conversation to the mundane. Hans usually has none of it with curt replies such as ‘really’ or ‘is that so’. An attempt by Jonathan to interest his pa in the maritime history of Harwich (Mayflower and all that) is casually dismissed by a grumpy observation about the tomato ketchup on Hans’ fish and chip supper.

One gets the vivid impression of an elderly man so trapped inside his own memories that he cannot engage with the pleasure of being alone with his son. As a reader I longed for this to be a redemptive story. In the end it is, and boy is it so, but you have to wait until the ghosts stalking both Jonathan and Hans are properly expunged.

What makes this short memoir so powerful is the realisation that the Kindertransport in reverse is brutally painful for both father and son. Jonathan is all-too honest about his own traumas including a mysterious need to drop to the ground (the revelation when it comes is shatteringly powerful). His writing, when needed, is spare but luminous. His honesty, his youthful thoughts of suicide, the near-abusive physicality of the father as a deeply troubled younger man – it is gripping, and ultimately brilliant in the true meaning of that word.

It is the Kindertransport story as never told before yet more, it is a truly magical account of those very special moments in our lives when our ageing parents near their end and one realises this is the last chance for reconciliation. The style reminds me of Sebald’s ‘Austerlitz’ with its nod to ethereal strangeness and the grainy photographs of the seemingly mundane which turn out to be petrol soaked shards of combustible memory. Lichtenstein’s masterly book shows that shadows, however deeply cast, can be dispersed by even a small amount of light.

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